Last updated on: 12/21/2009 | Author:

Richardson v. Ramirez

Decided on June 24, 1974; 418 US 24

Three released felons sue for legal ability to vote


A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (voting rights), Fourteenth Amendment 

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does denying convicted felons the right to vote violate their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment?


A. Background:

The three individual respondents in this case had been convicted of felonies and completed their respective sentences and paroles. They filed a class action in the Supreme Court of California to compel California county election officials to register them as voters. They challenged provisions of the California Constitution and implementing statutes, which disenfranchised persons convicted of an “infamous crime.” Respondents argued that the application of these provisions denied them the right to equal protection of the laws under the Federal Constitution. 

Respondents challenged the constitutionality of their exclusion from voting on two grounds. First, it was contended that California’s denial of the franchise to the class of ex-felons could no longer withstand scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Relying on the Court’s recent voting-rights cases, respondents argued that a compelling state interest must be found to justify exclusion of a class from the franchise, and that California could assert no such interest with respect to ex-felons. Second, respondents contended that application of the challenged California constitutional and statutory provisions by election officials of the State’s 58 counties was so lacking in uniformity as to deny them due process and “geographical… equal protection.”

They appended a report by respondent California Secretary of State, and the questionnaires returned by county election officials on which it was based.  The report concluded that there was wide variation in the county election officials’ interpretation of the challenged voting exclusions.  The Supreme Court of California upheld the first contention, holding that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause, and therefore did not reach the second contention.

The petitioners filed an appeal and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Martin R. Glick argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Gene Livingston and Burton D. Fretz.

Daniel Hays Lowenstein filed a brief for respondent Brown, Secretary of State of California.

Duncan M. James, District Attorney of Mendocino County, Ukiah, Cal., argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Philip L. Goar, A. L. Wirin, and Fred Okrand filed a brief  for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, urging affirmance.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Chesterfield Smith and Daniel L. Skoler for the American Bar Assn.

Evelle J. Younger, Attorney General, Iver E. Skjeie, Assistant Attorney General, and George J. Roth, Deputy Attorney General, filed a brief for the State of California as amicus curiae, urging reversal.


“Unlike most claims under the Equal Protection Clause, for the decision of which we have only the language of the Clause itself as it is embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment, respondents’ claim implicates not merely the language of the Equal Protection Clause of 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, but also the provisions of the less familiar 2 of the Amendment:

‘Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.’

Petitioner contends that the italicized language of 2 expressly exempts from the sanction of that section disenfranchisement grounded on prior conviction of a felony.  She goes on to argue that those who framed and adopted the Fourteenth Amendment could not have intended to prohibit outright in 1 of that Amendment that which was expressly exempted from the lesser sanction of reduced representation imposed by 2 of the Amendment. This argument seems to us a persuasive one unless it can be shown that the language of 2, ‘except for participation in rebellion, or other crime,’ was intended to have a different meaning than would appear from its face…

[T]he exclusion of felons from the vote has an affirmative sanction in section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, a sanction which was not present in the case of the other restrictions on the franchise which were invalidated in the cases on which respondents rely.  We hold that the understanding of those who adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, as reflected in the express language of 2 and in the historical and judicial interpretation of the Amendment’s applicability to state laws disenfranchising felons, is of controlling significance in distinguishing such laws from those other state limitations on the franchise which have been held invalid under the Equal Protection Clause by this Court…

Pressed upon us by the respondents, and by amici curiae, are contentions that these notions are outmoded, and that the more modern view is that it is essential to the process of rehabilitating the ex-felon that he be returned to his role in society as a fully participating citizen when he has completed the serving of his term. We would by no means discount these arguments if addressed to the legislative forum which may properly weigh and balance them against those advanced in support of California’s present constitutional provisions. But it is not for us to choose one set of values over the other.  If respondents are correct, and the view which they advocate is indeed the more enlightened and sensible one, presumably the people of the State of California will ultimately come around to that view. And if they do not do so, their failure is some evidence, at least, of the fact that there are two sides to the argument.

We therefore hold that the Supreme Court of California erred in concluding that California may no longer, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, exclude from the franchise convicted felons who have completed their sentences and paroles.  The California court did not reach respondents’ alternative contention that there was such a total lack of uniformity in county election officials’ enforcement of the challenged state laws as to work a separate denial of equal protection, and we believe that it should have an opportunity to consider the claim before we address ourselves to it.  Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

Held: The judgment of the Supreme Court of California is reversed and remanded.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Rehnquist, W.  Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T.  Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Douglas, W.  Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Marshall’s opinion in part)
  • Brennan, W.  Pro (Joined Marshall’s opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Supreme Court of California in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.